It’s the dead of winter and Mike Lee of Arizona is catching big beautiful trout on dry flies at the Lower Flats of the San Juan River in northwestern New Mexico and state fisheries biologist Marc Wethington couldn’t be happier for him.
“This is some of the best fishing in the west,” said Lee, a 62-year-old retired school teacher, as he chatted with Wethington on the banks for the river below Navajo Dam. “All the fish that I’ve caught here have looked really healthy and there’s been plenty of them.”
But that’s just what Wethington and the state Game and Fish Department (NMDGF) have been preparing for over the last decade.
“It’s reassuring to see that many of our habitat improvement projects have worked as intended,” said Wethington, 50, who has been stationed on the San Juan since beginning his career with NMDGF back in 1995.
Wethington has since overseen four major habitat improvement projects on five miles of the state’s prized trophy trout waters to improve fish habitat and maintain high quality angling during lower flows.
“We’ve been champions of this work since day one, “said Larry Johnson of the San Juan River Guides Association.” And they’ve really paid off.”
Johnson said despite the low flows this year anglers enjoyed great fishing in the Braids area due to improvements made there.
And there’s great fishing to be found right on the door step of the Gravel Pit take-out due to improvements in the area below Simon Canyon.
“Back in the old days we’d just row right through there without stopping, it was so dead,” he said.
Now the river below Duranglers Corner features lots of fish and some of the best dry fly action on the river, Johnson said.
And in the meantime Wethington is looking forward to see how well the department’s latest effort to improve fish and wildfowl habitat on the river’s back channels will work out.
The latest project involved narrowing and deepening the two back channels running between Texas Hole and the Lower Flats and on down to Baetis Bend to improve habitat for trout and angling for the public.
“It looks better now than it did at twice the flow,” Wethington remarked while inspecting the work recently.
Workers added cobble and other natural material to the banks to narrow the channel and dug out some of the pools to allow fish that find their way into the back channels to thrive there even under lower flows.
And that means more fishing opportunities for anglers seeking to escape the crowds that one can expect to encounter on the state’s most popular trout fishery.
The same project also resulted in the expansion of a marsh upstream of the Baetis Bend parking lot where several interconnected ponds were created and native vegetation introduced to provide more wetland habitat for waterfowl.
The wetland project should benefit bird watchers and hunters alike and might even hold fish someday, Wethington said.
But it may be the Department’s efforts some 14 miles downstream of Navajo Dam at the Hammond Tract that could prove to be the most alluring to anglers as it opens up a whole other stretch of river to fishing.
Since the late 1980s the department has owned an 80 acre parcel including about a mile of riverfront just upstream of the Hammond Diversion which had provided San Juan River boaters with a rudimentary takeout.
But the riverbank there has long been impenetrable due to dense stands of water robbing, non-native Salt Cedar and Russian Olive trees and the boat take-out was nothing more a small opening hacked through to the river.
Only the hardiest of diehard anglers frequented this spot due to the conditions.
But last year work began on clearing the riverfront area of the invasive trees thanks to funding from the state forestry division. The work has since opened up the entire south bank of the river and continues on the north side this year.
The river at the Hammond take-out already features some pretty decent trout water but is slated to receive in-stream habitat improvements to make it even better.
And the take-out and parking lot will be upgraded during the process also, Wethington added.
The projects are all part of an estimated $1.2 million in improvements the river has seen in recent years funded through federal taxes on fishing and boating equipment, state legislative appropriations and donations of manpower, equipment and money from the oil and gas industry and sporting and conservation organizations.
The San Juan River has long been a top trout fishing destination for anglers due to a huge population of large trout of and many miles of public access. The river’s draw brings in an estimated $40 million to the state’s economy annually, according to a New Mexico State University economic study.